Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Online Learning Environment - 1999

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 14, 2010

Originally posted on Half an Hour, March 14, 2010.

This is documentation for a learning management system I built at Assiniboine Community College between the years 1995-1999. It does not refer to a currently existing system, as development on OLe was ended when no development money was forthcoming and I left the College to work at the University of Alberta. There is more documentation of the same system in my 1997 presentation, later published as a paper, Web-Based Courses: The Assiniboine Model (Wayback version here).

MS-Word Version

What is OLe?

OLe (Online Learning Environment – pronounced oh-lay) is an internet based system for distance education course delivery.

It has two major components: first, a content component, consisting of online texts, graphics, and multimedia, and second, a communications component, consisting of an array of tools for discussion and collaboration.

OLe also supports online registration, online tests and exercises, quick quizzes, and a variety of other tools and utilities.

Behind the scenes, OLe also provides course instructors with a variety of options: online test marking, dynamic pages, class scheduling, personal profiles pages, and more

And because of its modular design, course development on OLe is efficient. A set of course building routines generates course structures in seconds. New courses may be constructed out of components of existing courses, or developed from scratch.

Because it is designed primarily as a distance education delivery system, OLe benefits from established methodology in that field. It is much more than a conferencing system, and much more than a set of web pages. Content and communications are integrated, allowing students to be paced through learning materials and discussion.

OLe is scalable. Any number of new courses may be added to the system. If enrollments are too large, a new course section with a new instructor may be created in seconds.

And OLe is portable. Written in PERL, the standard language for programs on the internet, OLe may be run from any internet server. And because OLe is modular, it is distributed. This means that a course being offered on one machine may access course components located on another machine. This means that any number of institutions may share OLe resources.

OLe Components

OLe is essentially structured as follows:

Courses on OLe use the same registration system and users in the OLe system each have their own Custom Home Page, from which they access all of their courses. Each course has its own home page, from which course content and discussion tools are accessed.

Behind the scenes, OLe has the following structure:

Instructors access the system through their own login page and enter their own home page. From there, they may access student data and update student records. They may also update many course components or build a new course.

Online Registration System

The Registration Information Gathering System allows OLe to gather new student information, create new student files, and send registration information via email to a designated Registrar. The system is launched automatically when a user attempts to access OLe components.

New users are taken from the Login Page to a new user information page, from which, if they choose, they may be sent to a registration page. Online forms collect basic information, which is used to generate the student’s database.

From the Custom Home Page, users may elect to register in a program or a course (if they are not previously registered in a program, program registration is selected automatically if they choose to register in a course). More information is collected to fill out student data, and email is sent to the designated Registrar.

Users who enter the registration system are either sent back to where they tried to enter OLe, or to the Custom User Page if they entered directly via the Login Page.

The Custom Home Page

The Custom Home Page is the user’s primary starting point. From this page, all other OLe services may be accessed.

What’s New provides links to new pages, marked assignments

Your Message Centre is a personal one-to-one messager

Discussion Lists on a variety of topics

Your Online Courses links to home pages for each course

Options include course and program registration

Instructors have a link directly to their Instructor Page

Links and email contacts

Course Home Page

The Course Home Page is the starting point for any given course. Students may access any of the course tools, contact the instructor, enter the course content where they left off, or view the course table of contents.

What’s New in this course

Your Progress shows you where you are and takes you there, or view contents

Instructor information and messaging

Discussion lists for this course

Links back to your Custom User Page

There may appear to be fewer links and resources on this Course Home Page than on similar pages in other systems. This is because much of the interactivity in an OLe course is embedded within the course content.

The Course Home Page is streamlined, providing only the most important links to other components. This focuses the student on the course content, rather than the communications tools or other distractions. It also makes the page easier for students to use.

Course Contents Page

The Course Contents Page serves a variety of functions. It gives the student an overview of the course in a single page. It also allows the student to view any part of the page. It reports on a student’s progress. And it provides links into any online exams or exercises.

Each of the Unit Titles (pictured, at left) expands into a display of the component unit modules. Clicking on a module opens a display listing each page in the module. By clicking on the page name, the student may go directly to that page.

Student progress is depicted by the status report (pictured, at right) for both units and their component modules. Clicking on the status report takes a student to a listing of exams or exercises in that module or unit. This is a direct access to required work, which allows the student to challenge a course (where appropriate), and also to marked versions of submitted work, where grades and comments may be viewed.

Static and Dynamic Content

One of the most innovative features of OLe is its use of two types of content: static content, and dynamic content.

Static Content is content which does not change over time. It is analogous to a course text, a handout, or any other resource material a teacher may have available in a classroom.

Dynamic Content is content which changes from time to time, reflecting either events of the day, instructor style or interests, or the interests and aptitudes of the class. Or, another way of describing dynamic content is this: it is the set of learning instructions a teacher would provide on a day-to-day basis, instructions which are emulated in distance with a Study Guide or Course Manual.

Each module of a course is composed of a combination of static and dynamic content. From the Course Home or Contents page, a student is taken into a set of dynamic pages. Following the instructions page by page, the student is eventually linked into static content as appropriate.

Static pages always return a student to the place they entered. This means that the same static pages may be used more than once within a course, or for more than one course, with no danger of the student getting lost. Indeed, students may enter static pages located on another machine or on CD-ROM.

Dynamic Pages

As mentioned above, an instructor may change the content of dynamic pages from time to time. This means that an instructor may react to a particular class (or even a particular individual) by amending instructions or providing access to resources as needed. Originally set up and configured by the Course Generation Tool, the system generates the following pages:

Welcome – a ‘splash page’ welcoming the student to the module

Introduction – a brief description of the module contents and relevance to the course content as a whole

Objectives – a statement of the module’s learning objectives

Evaluation – a description of how the student will be evaluated for work completed in this module

Resources – a list of resources (texts, videos, etc.) required to complete the module

D1 … Dn – generic dynamic pages

Congratulations – closure and a link to the module assignment or test

The table of contents page pictured below illustrates a typical set of dynamic pages in a given module:

Static Pages

Static pages contain the content of a given course module. Static pages are similar to the resources one might expect to find on a CD-ROM based course. For any given topic, static pages provide information (such as the presentation of concept or idea), examples, and exercises.

Static pages may link into a variety of tools. For example, a static page may recommend participation in a discussion list, or it may suggest that a student write a journal entry, or an online exercise form may be provided.

Static data in OLe is stored in its own directory, separate from other course pages, and is organized hierarchically. This allows an instructor to create a link to a very general description of the concept, or a particular aspect of that concept.

An instructor may determine how much, or how little, of a given set of static data pages a student should view at a given time. This allows the instructor to pace delivery, and avoid overwhelming a student with too much information at a time. For review, however, a student may be given access to an entire set of static pages.

For example, the link from Dynamic page c to static page c allows the student access only to the shaded area in the static data set pictured below:

Content Pages

The primary design criteria for content pages are simplicity and clarity. Pages are for the most part designed to fit the computer screen. A few simple navigation buttons are available, directing the student through the material.

This approach differs from most online courses. In other courses, the entire range of communication and navigation tools is available on each page. We feel this distracts the student from the content and takes up valuable screen space.

Pages employ wide margins and reasonably large text for easy viewing (this is especially important for delivery over non-standard media, such as Web-TV).

Standard images – such as the background tile and navigation buttons – are the same on every page. The system administrator may change these globally with minor modifications. Indeed, as the course is delivered, these will change to reflect the season.

Communication Tools

As mentioned above, an array of communication tools is employed on OLe to facilitate discussion and interaction between instructor and students. These tools are for the most part embedded in course content, although links to some of them are provided on the Custom User Page and the Course Home Page.

For the most part, however, communication tools are accessed on an as-needed basis from static or dynamic pages. This means that a student does not need to interrupt his or her learning to seek the appropriate tool; it is provided when necessary.

The illustration below depicts a typical sequence of dynamic pages linking into communications tools:

In order to keep the student from getting lost, most tools pop up in their own window when they are invoked, and disappear when the student is finished. This means that the student never leaves the current page.

The next few pages describe some of the communication tools used by OLe.

Comm Badge

Comm Badge is a personal messaging system. It is designed for quick one-on-one communications. It was developed because, in cases where many students share one internet account, email does not provide enough privacy.

On opening Comm Badge, users may view a list of messages, compose a new message, search through a list of users to send a message, reply to a message, delete messages, or quit.

Comm Badge links may be located anywhere in static or dynamic pages. Comm Badge links may be pre-addressed, so the student need not look up the instructor’s address. Thus, the only work a student does is to type the message and click ‘Send’.

The primary design criteria for Comm Badge was simplicity. It is intended to establish communications even for very novice users.

Future options for Comm Badge will include the ability to save messages (both those send and those received) and to email messages to a regular email address.


Clist stands for Convergent Discussion List. It is an online discussion forum in which users may post messages for others to read, and read messages others have posted.

Clist provides separate forums, each dedicated to a distinct topic. A link to Clist may specify a particular topic, or a user may select from a list of topics. Each user has his or her own list of topics, so users do not view discussions outside their course (or even discussions among people more advanced in the same course).

Clist is a very flexible program, intended to be used in a wide variety of situations by both instructors and students. A full search capacity is included for both content and authors. Messages may be sorted in several ways. Topics may be merged, and messages may be merged. Messages may be quoted in other messages.

A Clist topic is added to a user’s list of topics simply by linking that user to the topic. So, for example, an instructor may send a Comm Badge Message or What’s New Message (see below) with an embedded Clist link. Alternatively, when a student is ready for a new topic, the link may be embedded in a dynamic or static page.

An instructor or student may create a new Clist topic at any time either by creating a link to a topic which does not exist or by selecting the ‘Create New Topic’ option on the CList screen.


Notebook is a tool which is intended for quick off-the-cuff comments by students. This makes it ideal for use as a journal or notebook. A notebook consists of a set of pages (a new page is created for each Notebook entry) through which a student or instructor may peruse.

The student version of Notebook provides a form on the left hand page, into which text is entered. On pages which have previously been created, the text is displayed. Instructor comments are displayed on the right hand side. This allows the instructor to react page by page to the student’s work.

The instructor view, pictured above, provides a form for comments on the right hand side and the student’s text on the left hand side.

Students are not restricted to one notebook. They may have any number of notebooks, each devoted to a different topic.

Links to Notebook are embedded in static or dynamic pages. A link may specify a notebook topic. A new Notebook is created if a student enters a topic for the first time.

Online Forms

Online forms are the most common of internet interactivity, and OLe supports them as well. Forms may be embedded into any static or dynamic page. Forms input is sent to a program which creates an page with forms input and creates a link which allows both instructor and student to add and view comments later.

Pictured below is a typical online form:

Additionally, many static pages contain self-test quizzes. Input from a self-test quiz is not stored on a web page. Rather, it is evaluated on the spot and answers are displayed to the student. Self-test quizzes are typically multiple-choice or true-false quizzes.

Instructor Options

Instructors have a home page which in many ways resembles a Custom User Page. From this page, an instructor may edit his or her personal profile, as pictured above, or enter a given course, as pictured below:

In a given course, the instructor may access the class list, or define course dynamic pages.

The Student List

In any given course, an instructor accesses student data by means of a student list, pictured above. The student list page also allows the instructor to view any or all of the students’ major types of information: location, program, and the like.

The instructor may view student information, and from that page, select a student’s course records. On this page is provided links to the students exercises and exams, as well as the student’s course plan (or schedule) and grade sheet.

Dynamic Page Editing

Going the other direction off the instructor’s Course Page, an instructor may edit dynamic pages. A list of all dynamic pages in a given course is presented, sorted by unit and module. Selecting a page by title, the instructor then works on an editing screen to edit the page. See the illustration, below.

In development are a number of tools and aids for instructors. Specifically, this page will contain a number of buttons which allow them to select, and embed into the page, any of the tools described above, links to external URLs, and links to static pages.

The dynamic page generation program creates dynamic pages as they are edited and stores them as web pages, automatically adding headings, backgrounds, and links to other dynamic pages.

Typically, an instructor would not revise every dynamic page every day. They would be revisited from time to time on an as-needed basis. However, instructors who are leading a group of students through a paced course offering can edit pages just before students arrive at them.

The Build Menu

One of the advantages of OLe is that new courses may be built very quickly and changes may be made in existing courses, or the entire system, easily and efficiently. The key to all this is the Build Menu, pictured below:

From this menu, an administrator may define major system pages (such as the login information page), change display formats (such as banners, text fonts and colours, or background tiles) on the fly, or create or edit new course components, including courses, sections (which are like individual classes), units, modules, instructors, and other data.

OLe Design Team

Conrad Albertson – HTML Programmer, software design assistant

Stephen Downes – Webmaster, software design, instructional design

Susan Hawkins – Content Specialist, English

Tranna Homenick – Content Specialist, English

Jerr Kerr – Project Coordinator

Dave Perkins – Content Specialist, Computer Systems

Bonnie Proven – Project Coordinator

Pih Ha Voon – Content Specialist, Mathematics

Original links accessible via the Wayback Machine.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: Jul 18, 2024 8:36 p.m.

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